INDIANAPOLIS — Frank Reich jumped right into research mode when he knew Philip Rivers would hit free agency.
The Indianapolis Colts coach studied tapes of Rivers’ throws from an uncharacteristically poor 2019 season to compare with those he made earlier in his career. Reich saw no difference.
When offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni and tight ends coach Jason Michael concurred with Reich’s opinion, general manager Chris Ballard went all in on a 38-year-old quarterback the Colts believe can make them a title contender.
“I really think he’s the same player he was five years ago physically, and he’s taken good care of his body,” Reich said recently. “I think he’s at a stage in his career where this is the right thing, this is a great move for him. He’s a great fit for us.”
There’s plenty to like about Rivers.
He has a reputation as the consummate pro and as a family man, active in the community. He understands the offense and the philosophy of Indy’s offensive brain trust after spending three seasons in San Diego working with Reich, Sirianni and Michael.
He even has a resume to back up his trash talk.
The eight-time Pro Bowler needs 60 completions, 2,091 yards and 24 TD passes to move past Dan Marino for No. 5 all-time in each category. Rivers needs 729 yards and three TD passes to become the sixth player in league history to throw for 60,000 yards and 400 TDs.
He shattered Chargers career passing marks, previously held by Dan Fouts, while throwing 44 fewer interceptions than the Pro Football Hall of Famer. Rivers has even outlasted Eli Manning, the guy he was swapped for during the 2004 draft in a move that defined the Chargers and Giants franchises for more than a decade.
But the Colts didn’t make this move because of Rivers’ past. They made it for the future.
“This guy is a fighter and he’s never going to quit. That’s what makes him special,” Sirianni said. “I get excited about our running attack combined with how good Philip is in the play-action game.”
Still, there are questions.
Rivers readily acknowledges his 17th NFL season could be his last. He’s already accepted a post-career head coaching job at St. Michael Catholic High School in Fairhope, Alabama. And the Colts invested $25 million for one season on a guy critics contend is rapidly declining.
Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian doesn’t see it the same way.
The architect of Indy’s most successful decade believes the Colts followed the formula he implemented when bringing the then-34-year-old Reich to Carolina for its inaugural 1995 season, and again in 2011 when he signed the then 39-year-old Kerry Collins to replace the injured Peyton Manning.
“What you’re looking for is a quarterback who can play at a reasonably high level, and when a quarterback reaches a certain age, it starts to get a little worrisome,” Polian said. “Philip has played well, has been pretty healthy throughout his career. The final piece of it is familiarity with a player. You don’t want to start over with someone you don’t know. That’s risky. They know him, he knows them, it’s the perfect marriage.”
It’s a partnership Rivers’ new teammates respect.
Four-time Pro Bowl receiver T.Y. Hilton expects Rivers to be inducted into the Hall of Fame one day. Running back Jonathan Taylor referred to his new quarterback as “Mr. Rivers” shortly after being drafted in April, and newly acquired defensive tackle DeForest Buckner is excited, too.
“It’s kind of a win-now mentality, you know what I mean?“ Buckner said. “We landed Philip Rivers and everything. I am just excited for the mentality of the team moving forward.”
Rivers replaces last season’s starter, Jacoby Brissett, potentially giving the Colts a short-term bridge to a new franchise quarterback following Andrew Luck’s surprise retirement in August. But the Colts looked good to Rivers for other reasons.
He’ll line up behind one of the league’s top offensive lines and will be throwing to speedsters such as Hilton and Parris Campbell as well as 6-foot-4 Michael Pittman Jr., Indy’s top draft pick. He also may have a stronger ground game, one ranked seventh last season.
That, the Colts believe, will allow Rivers to use the play-action game to his advantage as he’s done in some of his best seasons.
“In 2013 when Nick and I were first there, he had statistically one of his better years and we ran the ball well that year,” Reich said. “Then you go back and look at the years with LT (LaDainian Tomlinson) and how effective he was in the passing game. He’s always been great in the passing game, but I don’t think there’s any doubt he’s been most efficient and played his best football when he has a good running game.”
Reich and Ballard are betting big it’s a combination that will revive Rivers’ career.
And if it pays off, Rivers just might add the one missing piece to his trophy room: a Super Bowl ring.
“I hear it’s a heck of a locker room and I know it’s a heck of a team just from seeing them compete each year — especially these past couple with this new regime,” Rivers said. “I am excited to be a part of them, be a part of those guys and try to help us get to the top.”